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Activists Question Ties Between Ex-ICE Contractor And Virginia Democrats

Gov. Ralph Northam and Dario Marquez, Jr.
Gov. Ralph Northam (left) alongside Dario Marquez, Jr. (center) and Wendy Marquez (right) at a bill signing in May. Immigration rights activists are calling on Northam and other Democrats to sever ties to the couple, who have collectively given over $625,000 to state Democratic politicians and groups.

As the co-founder and CEO of MVM Inc., Dario Marquez Jr. oversaw hundreds of millions of dollars in federal contracts for work done everywhere from Iraq to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In 2014, MVM won a contract now worth over $300 million to transport an influx of unaccompanied minors coming to the U.S. southern border. 

Closer to his home in McLean, Marquez has contributed nearly half a million dollars to Democratic politicians and causes in Virginia over the past decade. Those politicians include Sen. Tim Kaine, for whom Marquez has served as a Finance Chairperson since 2012, and Gov. Ralph Northam, who invited Dario and his wife, Wendy, to a bill signing in May. 

A small but vocal group of activists are calling for Democrats to stop taking Marquez’s cash, which they say is tainted by its association with inhumane immigration policies. They say MVM helps enable a broken system of detention, and is guilty of abuses itself. A July 2018 investigation by the investigative podcast Reveal found that MVM temporarily kept immigrant children overnight in a Phoenix office with no kitchen and only a few toilets.

On Wednesday, a trio of Northern Virginia-based social justice groups launched a petition calling for Democrats to refuse money from Marquez and immigration-related contractors. The push by local activists is part of a broader movement to pressure companies involved in immigrant detention. Firms ranging from American Airlines to Bank of America have backed away from business involving detention after taking heat from activists and employees. 

Danny Cendejas, an organizer with the migrant rights group La ColectiVa, said Democratic lawmakers had a track record of saying they stood for migrant rights while voting to fund federal agencies that he believed enabled abuses. 

“If these elected officials truly stand for migrant rights, they would not be collaborating in any way or having any relationships with contractors and collaborators of ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and Border Patrol,” Cendejas said. 

Marquez says he sold all of his financial stake in MVM to his son, Kevin Marquez in 2015, although he’s still listed as “director” in MVM’s most recent paperwork filed with the state in October 2018, and in federal campaign finance forms from March 2019 (Marquez says he serves as an informal advisor to his son).

Marquez and MVM deny wrongdoing and stand by what they say is a track record of safely transporting unaccompanied minors. Marquez says that the principles that guide he and his wife’s political activism “are closely aligned with the same groups that are now opposing us.”

“While we stand behind the fine work that the men and women of MVM are doing, we strongly endorse and support those political leaders that wish to change the horrendous policies both here and abroad, that are at the fulcrum of this immigration crisis,” he said in an email.

History Of MVM

Dario Marquez was sworn in as an agent of the Secret Service in 1972 and protected a roster of foreign and domestic leaders that included then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Marquez and two other ex-Secret Service officials established MVM in 1979 in Anaheim, California before relocating it to Northern Virginia. 

MVM began winning contracts to protect U.S. embassies. In 1987, the State Department hired the firm to provide security at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow after an embassy guard was convicted of spying. 

MVM grew rapidly in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and during the U.S. invasions of Iraq. A 2008 Wall Street Journal article said the company “handled much of the Central Intelligence Agency's and National Security Agency's personal security in war zones.” 

That era was also marked by complaints from employees about the company’s training and operating procedures, according to the Journal. An employee of the company sued for wrongful termination after complaining that his colleagues stockpiled weapons, padded expense reports and lied about their reasons for shooting into a Baghdad neighborhood, the Journal reported.

MVM’s 2014 contract with ICE occurred in the wake of an influx in unaccompanied minors fleeing violence in Central America. Marquez says the group provided transportation to youth from detention facilities run by federal law enforcement to shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHS).

“While we do not agree with this administrations’ immigration policies, we believe the program enacted during the Obama Administration was compassionate and follow[ed] the guidelines stipulated in the Flores Agreement,” Marquez said, referring to a court case that set conditions on the federal government’s detention of immigrant youth. 

Newsweek reported last year that MVM won a contract related to a classified Federal Bureau of Investigation interrogation program at Guantanamo Bay.  

Marquez says he stepped down as MVM’s CEO in 2015 and sold all of his investments in the company. He remained active in other causes and businesses during his stint as CEO, including co-founding the Hispanic College Fund in 1995 and establishing a shooting range and law enforcement training facility in Ashburn, Virginia in 2008 called the Silver Eagle Group.

Modern Controversy

MVM mostly operated without controversy until President Trump’s family separation policy last year brought scrutiny to federal contractors charged with running detention shelters and related operations.

The attention on MVM came to a head in Reveal’s July 2018 report, which was prompted by a neighbor who observed an influx of immigrants clad in blue sweatsuits being escorted inside a Phoenix office space rented by MVM. The building had not been licensed as a childcare facility by Arizona -- a requirement for facilities that handle children who are unaccompanied by a parent or guardian for less than 24 hours.


Migrant children are led inside a Phoenix office building owned by MVM last year. Lianna Dunlap, who lived nearby, watched dozens of children and teenagers led into the space and tipped off Reveal. (Video: Lianna Dunlap)

Tracy Schmaler, a spokesperson for MVM, said that the video shot by Reveal captured "a brief period in the summer of 2018."

"The increased number of individuals needing escorts, in combination with travel interruptions, resulted in isolated instances of individuals remaining overnight at MVM’s Phoenix office designated waiting area for families and children," Schmaler said in a statement. "Those individuals who experienced these longer travel times received the same compassionate care as those during shorter wait times. While in MVM’s care, every individual is treated with compassion and respect by bilingual escorts who provide them with clean clothes, new hygiene products, bottled water, and commercially prepared meals and snacks."

MVM’s internal labor practices have attracted notice from the federal government. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed three separate cases since 2017 alleging discrimination based on race, sex, and religion. One of those cases was settled for $135,000; the other two are still tied up in litigation.

Separately, MVM entered into a conciliation agreement last year with the Department of Labor over "multiple instances of harassment against MVM employees, which were directed at employees on the basis of their nation origin (African), sex (female) and disability status." The agreement required MVM to pay a group of security guards from several African countries a total of $250,000 for discrimination they experienced from 2013 to 2015. 

Schmaler said that roughly 80% of MVM’s over 1,800 employees self-identify as a minority, and said that the company “does not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any nature.” She said the company could not comment on the pending EEOC case and said that neither MVM or the Department of Labor were able to confirm the allegations contained in the conciliation agreement.  

Marquez And Virginia Democrats

Dario and Wendy Marquez began giving to state Democrats in the late 1990s, but significantly increased their contributions in the last five years. 

One of the top beneficiaries of their donations is Sen. Tim Kaine. His campaigns and political action committee took in nearly $93,000 from Dario Marquez, with most donations occurring since 2015. Dario Marquez held a volunteer position as Kaine’s Finance Chairperson in Senate elections in 2012 and 2018, and Kaine’s vice presidential candidacy in 2016. In that position, Marquez helped coordinate top donors to Kaine’s campaign.

Kaine has not taken in any contributions from Marquez since the Reveal investigation aired, although others have; Dario Marquez donated $5,000 apiece to political action committees affiliated with Gov. Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring on June 30. 

Marquez made an especially large play in the 2017 elections, contributing $30,000 toward Northam’s left-wing challenger, Tom Perriello, and $120,000 to Win Virginia, a PAC Perriello headed after his defeat in the primary. 

All told, Dario Marquez has donated $499,840 to Virginia Democrats through June 30, 2019, while Wendy Marquez has given $127,350. The couple has also made significant donations to Democratic groups outside of the state, as well as occasional contributions to Republicans. 

Like many top donors, the Marquezes also serve on state panels and boards. Dario Marquez serves on the Secure Commonwealth Panel, a group focused on emergency preparation and homeland security, while Wendy Marquez serves on the George Mason University Board of Visitors.

The Marquezes have shifted professional focus to their firm Wize Solutions, an IT firm based in Abingdon, Va. that they say is designed to bring well-paying tech jobs to a distressed corner of the state. In May, they appeared alongside Gov. Northam at the signing of a bill that will create an IT apprenticeship program in Southwest and Southside Virginia. 

Ire Of Activists

A handful of local left-wing activists are calling for Democrats to distance themselves from Marquez, whose proximity to detention policies they say calls into question the politicians’ commitment to reform. La ColectiVa and two other groups, Justice for Muslims Collective and Showing Up for Racial Justice Northern Virginia, launched a petition on Wednesday calling for Virginia Democrats to stop accepting Marquezs’ donations, and launch an investigation into federal contractors profiting from ICE contracts, among other demands. 

Danny Cendejas, the organizer, said that Marquezs’ historic role in MVM was uncontested, and said his current role was ambiguous, pointing to March 2019 campaign finance forms in which Dario Marquez lists MVM as his employer. 

“The connection is clearly there,” Cendejas said. “There's no working around it. So if elected officials want to be truly honest…. this is something that needs to be ended and should be repaired as well.”

The contributions have also rubbed some Democrats the wrong way.

Melissa McKenney, a Democratic activist with the progressive group Together We Will Henrico, said she understood that Marquez was not actively involved in managing the company, but said MVM’s role in the broader system deserved scrutiny.

“I think that anybody who's profiting off the system or is directly part of the system can be asked to do better,” McKenney said. 

McKenney and Cendejas pointed to Sen. Kaine and Sen. Mark Warners’ votes for a recent $4.6 billion emergency spending bill to address costs associated with a surge in migrants at the border; the vote exposed a rift among House Democrats, with left-leaning members of the caucus calling for provisions that would have banned private contractors from operating shelters.

“Senator Kaine just got reelected,” McKenny said. “He did it with relative ease. So if anybody can be a leader in this role, it might be him.”

Democrats Respond

WCVE reached out to ten Democratic politicians and groups that accepted Marquez money. Most ignored several requests for comment, while those that did respond didn’t directly address whether they would continue to accept Marquez’s donations. 

A spokesperson for Sen. Kaine said that he stood against Trump’s “heartless” immigration policies, and believes “MVM, and everyone providing transportation to these children, must be held to the highest standards." A spokesperson for Sen. Mark Warner said that he was “horrified” by the treatment of children at the border, and believes “any contractor who provides services to CBP [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] or ICE (like MVM) must be held to the highest standards.” A spokesperson for Attorney General Mark Herring said Herring had repeatedly gone to court to defend the rights of immigrants, including in a case last week, “so his commitment on these issues is not in doubt.”

Warner and Kaine introduced a bill last week that would end family separations and bar private contractors from operating new Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) shelters or influx facilities. But it faces long odds in a Senate controlled by Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has consistently backed Trump’s strict immigration policies. 

“It's a really a complicity of both parties,” Cendejas said.

Updated July 18 at 12:50 p.m. - A previous version of this story mispelled Tom Perriello's and Melissa McKenney's last names.